Bertha, Princess of Francia and Queen of Kent

St Martin Canterbury St Martin’s Church, Canterbury showing the Roman bricks forming the chancel that would have been known to Bertha at the end of the 6th Century Wikimedia Commons)


It is usually thought that Bertha was the daughter of Charibert I, King of the Frankish kingdom centred on Paris, and his wife Ingoberga.  Gregory, Bishop of Tours, knew Ingoberga personally and wrote about her in his History of the Franks in the years around 590. Charibert had a complicated marital life and seems to have set Ingoberga aside soon after he became king in 561. However, as Bertha was recognised as legitimate, if she was his daughter, this suggests she could have been born perhaps no later than about 562. According to Gregory, Ingoberga was then about 43 years of age, which means it is possible she was Bertha’s mother, but this was quite late to be having children and would have been unusual at the time. Although it would be easier to explain Charibert and Ingoberga as her parents if Bertha was born somewhat before 562, her subsequent life story indicates it is unlikely she was born much if at all before this date. 

Nothing is known of Bertha’s early life, and the tradition that she grew up around Tours seems to be based on her apparent adherence to the cult of St Martin of Tours, to whom the church she later used in Canterbury was dedicated. It is also the case that Ingoberga retired to Tours after she separated from Charibert, which might suggest some connection to the area. However, it may be significant that while Gregory mentions in his History that Ingoberga’s daughter married ‘the son of a King of Kent’, he does not name her. It is the English historian Bede, writing some 150 years later, who introduces the name Bertha and says that she was of the Frankish royal family and was married to the Kentish King Æthelberht.

There has been much debate about when Æthelberht became King of Kent, but scholarly opinion now tends towards this being in around 589 or 590. It seems improbable that the diplomatic match of a marriage to Princess Bertha would have been acceptable in Kent had she been much older than 18 or 20 at the time. If she was born around 562, this suggests the marriage may have taken place around 580. Bede says that under the marriage agreement, Bertha was allowed to practise her Christian faith, although Kent was still pagan at this time, and also that she could bring with her a priest, Bishop Liudhard.

The fact that a Frankish princess married the future King of Kent suggests that the Kingdom of Kent was open to Frankish political influence and that the relationship with Kent was important to Frankia, the most important state in Western Europe at that time. This gave Bertha a role in the international power politics of the time, and it seems credible that this was intended to include paving the way for Æthelberht’s conversion. For the Kings of Frankia, it was beneficial to have friendly Christian monarchs on their north west border. That Bertha was ultimately successful in encouraging Æthelberht to take the step to conversion is indicated by what happened in the final years of the 6th Century. Surviving papal correspondence indicates that Æthelberht invited Pope Gregory to send a Christian mission.

The mission that arrived in Kent in 597 was led by Augustine, Prior at the monastery in Rome that Pope Gregory had founded in his own ancestral home. Augustine soon established the mission in Canterbury, selected by Pope Gregory because he saw the mission as re-Romanising Britain and he believed this was best achieved using the urban infrastructure created by the Romans during their occupation. In Continental Europe, the Church was governed by Bishops based in the towns that still survived from the Roman period. Gregory wanted the same approach in Britain but seems not to have known that the towns in Roman Britain were largely abandoned over 200 years previously as Roman rule fell apart. In 597 they were still mostly empty of people. Nevertheless, Augustine followed his instructions to organise the church in the old Roman towns. There was plenty of vacant land for Æthelberht to make available to Augustine, and the first cathedral in Canterbury was founded where the current cathedral still stands.

It is recorded by Bede that Bertha worshipped at what had been a Roman church, dedicated to St Martin of Tours. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this was the church of St Martin that still stands in Canterbury, which certainly contains much Roman brick in its fabric. However, we currently do not know whether this was a Roman building that Bertha took over, as Bede suggests, or whether it was built for Bertha using recycled Roman brick. There would have been plenty available in the derelict buildings of Roman Canterbury at the end of the 6th Century, and Bertha would have had ready access in Francia to the masons she needed to build in masonry. The link of this church with Bertha was dramatically reinforced in the early 19th Century when a gold pendant, probably from the late 6th Century, depicting the head and name of Bishop Liudhard, was discovered. This was part of a collection that probably formed a necklace in a grave in the churchyard of St Martin’s. It is thought this may have been created for Bishop Liudhard to give to a high-ranking Christian convert.

Liuhard pendant Pendant showing Bishop Liudhard, reported as discovered in a grave in the churchyard of St Martin’s, Canterbury prior to 1845 Liverpool City Museums)

The last definite information we have about Bertha concerns the correspondence she received from the Pope in 601.  This described her as a new Helena, a reference to the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine who became the first Christian emperor in the early 4th Century.  Helena herself was a passionate Christian and devoted collector of holy relics who used her position of power to promote Christianity.  The Pope’s allusion may have been influenced by the fact that in 306, Constantine was acclaimed Emperor in Britain.  This gave Augustine’s mission to recover the former Roman provinces of Britain and restore them to the Christian faith a particular resonance.

How long Bertha lived after 601 is unknown. It seems likely that she lived several more years at least as at this time it is probable her daughter Æthelburh (Ethelburga) had still to be born. As with the birth of Bertha, the date when Æthelburh is likely to have been born involves arithmetic. Just as Bertha was probably no more than 18 or 20 when she married Æthelberht so must Æthelburh have been when she married Edwin King of Northumbria in 625. Thus Æthelburh is likely to have been born no earlier than 605. Moreover she seems to have been brought up a Christian, which implies the continuing influence of a Christian mother. Thus it seems probable that Bertha survived for some years after 605 to bring her up.

If Æthelburh was born in 605, this raises another problem with regard to when Bertha was born. We have already seen how she could not have been born any later than 562 if her parents were Charibert and Ingoberga, by which date Ingoberga herself was 43 years of age. If Bertha was born in 562 and Æthelburh in 605, Bertha too would have been aged 43 when Æthelburh was born. To have one royal mother of this age is possible but perhaps unlikely. To have two seems to stretch credibility beyond what is reasonable.

This difficulty could be resolved if we suppose that Bertha was not the first Frankish princess that Æthelberht married, and accordingly that Bertha was not the unnamed daughter of Charibert and Ingoberga mentioned by Gregory of Tours as bride to the son of the Kentish King. Indeed, we should also note that Gregory does not name the Kentish prince either. So this leaves open the alternative possibility that the unnamed Frankish princess could also have married an uncle or brother of Æthelberht who perhaps died and did not succeed to the throne. Either way, this scenario makes it possible Bertha’s parents are unknown and she was born significantly after 562. Thus she could have married Æthelberht as late as the 590s, not long before Augustine’s mission. In some ways, this is a much more satisfactory explanation of the facts we know. In particular it eliminates the need for two royal births in successive generations to mothers at the advanced age of 43; it would also credit Bertha with achieving success in persuading Æthelberht to request the mission from Rome after only a few years of marriage. If she married him around in 580, one must suppose that she spent 15 years trying to persuade him before she was successful.

Æthelburh’s brother Eadbald, following their father’s death in 616 (or possibly 618), is reported to have married his father’s widow, a pagan practice in direct opposition to Christian teaching. It seems Eadbald may not have converted to Christianity before he succeeded to the throne. Æthelberht’s widow is more likely to have been Eadbald’s step-mother rather than his natural mother. As Æthelberht’s widow was prepared to entertain this second marriage, this also suggests she was pagan. It seems improbable this could have been Christian Bertha, suggesting that she was already dead and that Æthelberht had married again, this time to a pagan. This might in turn imply that Æthelberht’s Christian faith had lapsed too at the end of his life. This would all tend to reinforce the view that it was Bertha who was responsible for Æthelburh’s Christian faith, and thus that she survived long enough after Æthelburh’s birth to give her a firm Christian foundation. It is true this is tending into the realm of speculation, and the records simply don’t exist to prove this one way or the other. Nevertheless it seems likely that on balance Bertha died at some point in the decade after 605, probably towards the end of that period.

Bertha was laid to rest in the south chapel of the new church of St Peter and St Paul, within what later became St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury. Appropriately, the chapel was dedicated to the saint who was probably Bertha’s favourite, Martin of Tours. Æthelberht, whatever his faith in the last years of his life, was buried nearby, and it was later recorded that Bishop Liudhard was also re-buried in this same chapel. But sadly Bertha’s bones did not remain undisturbed and they were subsequently lost in the destruction of St Augustine’s Abbey that followed the dissolution ordered by King Henry VIII in 1538.

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